Coronavirus uncertainty prompts return of Honest Actors’ Podcast
In 2017 Jonathan Harden thought he was the only failing actor, then he started a podcast
Jonathan Harden: ‘The truth is 99 per cent of actors don’t have a salary.’
In 2011, when Jonathan Harden landed his first major role, on Titanic: Blood and Steel, he was in the back of a car making small talk with his acting idol and fellow cast member, Liam Cunningham. Harden asked Cunningham what work he had lined up, bracing himself for a tempting glimpse into the life of a high-profile actor.
Cunningham replied that, after the series, he had nothing planned.
“He was genuinely panicking about work,” says Harden. “Derek Jacobi was there as well, and it was the same for him. I thought if it was hard for them, it must be hard for everybody.”
Fast forward to 2014, after a meaty role in the BBC’s The Life and Adventures of Nick Nickleby; being cast by Ralph Fiennes in The Invisible Woman, and a critically acclaimed turn in Children of the Sun at the National Theatre in London: a glut of work that allowed Harden to audition for lead TV roles – none of which came to fruition. Eventually the work dried up and he was making ends meet by working as a builder in the day and barman at night.
“I thought I was on the cusp of something big, but suddenly I wasn’t working as an actor, I was exhausted, and I was skint,” Harden says. “I couldn’t see a way out of it. I felt very lonely and very isolated, even though I’ve been with my wife [The Fall actor Bronágh Taggart] for 20 years and I like to think we understand each other. But I felt a failure and felt alone.
“Still, I’d bump into a friend and they’d say ‘you’re doing so well’, and I didn’t correct them. I went along with it.”
Recalling that frank conversation with Cunningham (who, incidentally, landed the long-running role of Davos Seaworth in Game of Thrones soon after), Harden realised that most other actors were being less than truthful about the realities of the job.
“There’s a running joke that if you’re asked what you’re doing and you say ‘I’ve just finished a play’, that could mean you did it a year ago,” he says. “I thought it would be interesting if we all decided to tell the truth from then on. If someone like Judi Dench said ‘sometimes I can’t see where my next job is coming from and I think about giving up’, we’d all feel less alone.”
So began The Honest Actors’ Podcast. It stands out as unique among the podcasts by actors for actors, most of which told of success stories or dispensed acting advice as if it were the only hurdle between the dormant times and acting nirvana.
As it was, a 2018 survey by the Arts Council in Northern Ireland, where Harden lives, found that mental health issues were three times higher among those in the performing arts than among the general population. They were also the most affected among the creative industries, especially when it came to self-confidence.
“The truth is 99 per cent of actors don’t have a salary,” says Harden. “You have to do job interviews 100 times a year, and you might only get two of those jobs. You usually have the same debts to train as an architect, except an architect is more likely to be able to pay them off. There’s no set logical career progression. You can’t make work on your own: a musician can at least play an instrument or write a song, but it’s very hard as an actor to content their creative spirit on their own. And when you do get work, it usually pays badly.
“Then usually what happens is you get to 30, you start going to friend’s weddings, those friends are in stable jobs and own a house, everyone talks like they pity you: ‘Are you still trying to act?’ It’s tough and it’s isolating.”
Starting in 2015 and lasting three series, he asked a diverse range of actors, from Joe McGann to Michaela Coel to the late John Rogan, the truth about how they navigated the industry. For the most part, the podcast wasn’t trying to solve the issues, but simply air them as a means of support. Common issues emerged, including the resilience needed for the fallow periods, dealing with rejection and the realities of a second job.
A surprising amount of interviewees had undertaken therapy.
“I’d always dismissed it, but to hear other people express our common struggles felt like my therapy,” says Harden. “I think it felt like that for others too: you can hear Joanna Scanlan [The Thick of It, Getting On] talk about trying to get a sniff of work, and about her own mental health struggles. It means everyone listening while in the crap job that pays the bills are transported away, and can feel like they’re sitting with Joanna Scanlan having a wee chat.”
Since The Honest Actors’ Podcast began, life has changed for Harden, now 40. For starters, the podcast gained prominence: securing about 15,000 listeners per episode, it was the UK’s top acting podcast within a week of launching, and stayed that way across all three series. It was the only podcast to be supported by Equity, the UK’s trade union for actors, and is recommended to theatre students in Rada and New York University. In time, similar podcasts sprung up; in 2017, The Honest Authors’ Podcast began, and in 2018, Elizabeth Day started her How to Fail podcast.
Harden wound down the podcast last year, once it had unearthed the common themes, and openness seeped into the acting community. With Taggart, who he met as drama students at Queen’s University, he returned from London to Belfast to raise their newborn son. While expanding into directing, he also began embracing voiceover work; he takes our Zoom call from the hi-spec soundproofed booth in their garage. Taggart, now also a TV writer, uses the other part of the garage as her office.
“The podcast has taught me to accept where I am,” he says. “I can survive on acting and voiceovering, and have been able to for four or five years. Things started going right for me, oddly, when the podcast went out. Maybe I walked into rooms with more confidence than before.
“When I started it, I didn’t want to become the ‘podcast actor’ but now I’d rather be known among actors for something worthwhile than be known among the public for something disposable.”
Harden and Taggart’s “portfolio career” means both are in better positions than others in the industry to continue working while in lockdown.
“But I think everyone’s worried because we don’t know what’s going to happen in the industry. TV shows that were interrupted might not continue if it’s not the right subject matter – the audience might just want big budget escapism and big names. So there might be less made. And especially with theatre out of action for longer, every actor is going to be available.”
To address the changing realities of the business and the new set of mental health issues it brings, he’s revived the podcast with a focus on the coronavirus crisis. He’s asked a few of the actors, such as Caoilfhionn Dunne and Tom Goodman-Hill, to return and discuss their lives in – to use the phrase du jour – these uncertain times.
A highlight will be Ennis-born Denise Gough, who was one of the first to impart her wisdom on the podcast. That first episode is an invigorating one to listen to with hindsight, as Gough discusses her journey from childminding to make ends meet, surviving on £30 a week, just before she took the lead in People, Places & Things at the National Theatre, which earned her the first of two Laurence Olivier Awards.
The revival of The Honest Actors’ Podcast is also welcome because, for all the increased openness around mental health and difficulties within the arts, the notions of talent, wealth, fame and happiness continue to be stubbornly tethered. It was only a few months ago that former EastEnders star Katie Jarvis made headlines in the British tabloids when it transpired she was working as a security guard in retail.
“Among actors the stigma of having another job has almost gone, but it still exists to a certain degree,” Harden says. “It’s tough, because it’s seen as admitting failure if you say you’re an actor and a barman. Someone I know has that as their Twitter bio, which I think is brilliant because it shows the industry sucks and they’re still sticking with it.
“But there’s a lot of shaming people who were in a show 20 years ago, with ‘where are they now’ type articles. That needs to be retired permanently. Although,” he adds, “I guess it depends on the actor: if you saw Judi Dench working as a lollipop lady, you’d be within your rights to call the press.”